History of the Railroad Police The Early Years
The openings of the first railroads in Maryland and North Carolina marked the real beginning of the railroad era in America. Only a few of the early companies survived for any considerable length of time.
By the year 1853, more than 200 railway charters had been granted in 11 states. By that year, more than 1,000 miles of railroad had been opened for operation in the states along the Eastern Shore, as well as in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Not much is known about how freight, employees and railroad property were protected during those early years; most situations were probably handled by government authorities, but even then some railroad employee must have had security responsibilities.
By 1850 there were more than 9,000 miles of railroad on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Then, in 1851, railroad construction west of the Mississippi irrupted at an almost inconceivable rate. By 1860 there were 30,626 miles of railroad in the country -- more than three times the mileage than existed just 10 years before.
With the discovery of gold in Colorado, Nevada and California,
the western movement began. Boomtowns sprang up along the railroads with
By the very nature of their physical construction, railroads became the prime prey of many well-organized bands of outlaws. Theft was rampant and the losses in dollars of freight, parcels and luggage were overwhelming to the railroad companies. Bridges, tunnels, stations, tracks and railroad cars were dynamited in daring holdups. Following the Civil War, thousands of unemployed soldiers/hobos took to the rail yards and to the rails to loot and rob.
The westward expanding railroads established business agents, who managed agencies, and who were responsible for handling the company's business from remote locations along the line.
Settlements often developed around these agencies, and civilization and crime tended to follow. There was little organized or effective law enforcement on the western frontier, and U.S. Marshals were few and widely scattered. Railway companies, left to protect themselves, contracted railroad policemen.
The title, "detective" was commonly used in the East.
Because the responsibility of the railroad policeman was to protect the
agency and the agent, the western railroads entitled their policemen, "Special
Agents". This title persevered throughout the years, and has
been adopted by most federal agencies today. Two of the most
famous Special Agents hired to protect the railroads were Bat Masterson
and Allen Pinkerton.
Some of the most famous outlaws of the Old West were members
of these groups. They include Harry Logan, aka Kid Curry; Ben Kilpatrick,
aka Tall Texan; Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy; and Harry
Longbaugh, aka The Sundance Kid. Jessie and Frank James of the James Gang
were also very active.
The nature of the times called for prompt and vigorous
action. If a railroad policeman could hold his own in a fight, and was
accurate with a gun, he was considered an asset to the company. This was
an era of smoking six-shooters. The Special Agents use of diplomacy and
investigative intelligence was secondary to his ability to handle himself
in physical confrontations with those who preyed upon the railroad.
The hiring of individuals was done with little regard for their background, thus many thugs and undesirable characters became Railroad Police Officers.
It was the general custom to simply hand a newly appointed officer a badge and send him out to work without further instruction in the law or how it was to be enforced. The manner in which he did his job was largely up to him. This method of selecting agents, and the lack of training and discipline, tainted this branch of railroad service, and resulted in a poor reputation for railroad police in communities along the rails.
Additionally, the contracting of detective agencies, such
as the Pinkertons, who employed experienced professional
Overall, both in the United States and Canada, the early days of railroad policing were beset by confusion and distrust. Those were pioneer days.
Along with the many other problems encountered by railroad police was the fact that they had no authority off railroad property, unless they were able to gain an appointment as a deputy or special policeman.
On February 27, 1865, the legislature of Pennsylvania enacted the Railroad Police Act -- the first act officially establishing railroad police. The act authorized the governor of the state to appoint railroad police officers, and gave statewide authority to these officers. This act provided the model legislation for the other states to follow.
The Mid Twentieth Century
Railroad Policing Today
With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950's, rail passenger ridership diminished. Federal deregulation of American railroads in 1980, and the resulting mergers and acquisitions resulted in fewer and larger railway companies. A trend that continues today.
Corporate streamlining has resulted in more efficient rail operations, which has led to the downsizing of the employee populations of railway companies, thus the reducing the number of railroad police officers.
These agents represented as many as 400 individual railroads with about 225,000 miles of mainline track. Property protection had always been a focus of railroad police, but by the mid-1940's passenger ridership was in the millions annually.
Engineering has also been a powerful contributor to the downsizing of the nation's rail police forces. For example, smaller, more powerful locomotives pull trains over tracks of continuous welded rail; Trains make fewer stops and travel at higher speeds; High value freight is fully enclosed in specially designed railcars; Rail Police use modern technology to better secure and protect freight in transit. As a result, today there are fewer than 2,300 railway police officers in North America.
In Canada, federal and provincial law regulates railroad
police. In the United States, the appointment, commissioning and regulation
of rail police is primarily a state mandate. Section 1704 of the
Crime Control Act of 1990, effective March 14, 1994, provides that: "A
railroad police officer who is certified or commissioned as a police officer
under the laws of any state shall, in accordance with the regulations issued
by the Secretary of Transportation, be authorized to enforce the laws of
any jurisdiction in which the rail carrier owns property."